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A Times Editorial

Zoning change would help revival

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2000

Cities as diverse as Boston, Seattle and Denver all share a common bond. By changing their zoning laws to encourage residential growth in their downtown areas, each has achieved an urban renaissance. Decaying districts have been revived. Businesses are thriving. And families that once fled to the suburbs are now returning to the cities in droves.

The St. Petersburg Planning Commission is urging the City Council to make similar changes in its zoning laws to encourage the renovation of abandoned buildings and the construction of new ones along stretches of Central Avenue, First Avenue N and First Avenue S. It's a good idea, and the council should support it.

The proposal calls for the creation of a so-called "urban village" zone in the city's Grand Central District. The designation would encourage the development of new housing and businesses that would enhance the improvements that already have occurred downtown.

An area that would be known as the "village core" along Central Avenue would allow up to 40 residential units per acre, as well as shops, offices, restaurants and hotels. Along the south side of First Avenue N and the north side of First Avenue S, the proposal calls for allowing homes, offices, bed and breakfasts, parks and parking structures.

The changes would please people like Marylyn Lowe who have been frustrated by outdated zoning codes that discourage residential growth downtown. Lowe bought a building on Central Avenue hoping to turn the ground floor into an art gallery, then rent the 12 apartments upstairs to artists.

Her plans hit a snag when she looked at the city's current zoning map, which says the space upstairs is considered commercial-industrial, not residential real estate. So Lowe can only rent the upstairs as daytime studio space.

Changing those rigid rules only makes sense in a city committed to bringing more people downtown. Especially since the commission says making the change would cost the city little up front. Strict design guidelines would be enforced to ensure that new and renovated buildings fit the style of the neighborhood. And owners would have to abide by rules meant to preserve the aesthetic appeal of the area.

Many of the buildings in the Central Avenue district were built in the early part of the 20th century when people typically lived, worked and shopped on the same block, and store owners often lived above their businesses. Postwar zoning codes imposed strict standards on many city neighborhoods, eventually driving many residents out into the suburbs.

City planners in Boston, Seattle and other major cities now characterize those zoning rules as a failure. The rules often did more harm than good, hastening the demise of neighborhoods they were intended to save. Changing them has proved a success in numerous cities. St. Petersburg should consider doing the same.

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